This is the transcript of the talk 'From Commonplace books to Facebook' given by Dr Juliet Shields on 11 April 2017 at the National Library of Scotland.
Today, we often think of books in opposition to technology, regarding reading, perhaps with a secret smug sense of superiority, as a wholesome alternative to watching television, browsing the internet, or checking our Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram accounts. Moreover, we distinguish the experience of reading a printed, bound book from the experience of reading the same text on a device, be it a Kindle, phone, tablet, or laptop. Yet books are also technological devices that enable the 'preservation and transfer of data' or information. Indeed, the printed book was perhaps the most important form of information technology created in the second millennium, a primitive kind of memory stick or hard drive. And before the printed book, there was the handwritten manuscript, a less efficient, but often more attractive, form of technology.
So, I'm going to be talking to you today about the commonplace book, a hybrid form that combines aspects of the handwritten manuscript and the printed book. Commonplace books originated in the 16th century, reached the height of their popularity in the 18th century, and became increasingly rare towards the end of 19th century, although some people keep them even today.
A commonplace book is simply a blank bound book into which extracts are copied for personal use. Such books would very likely contain passages of poetry and prose, whether copied from the works of favourite authors or composed by the book's owner or by his or her friends. It might also contain proverbs, jokes, prayers, recipes, songs, or sketches. Each commonplace book is entirely unique, reflecting the interests and connections of its owners.
And in this uniqueness, if we look at this commonplace book, it was kept by a lawyer of some sort in the 17th century. It comes from the original Advocates library collection. And here, he's copied in extracts of poetry, but elsewhere there are legal maxims in Latin, and we can compare that with this commonplace book which is from the 19th century, kept by a woman. And you can see that there are two different kinds of handwriting there, meaning that she's been inviting other people to write in her commonplace book, and someone has even made that beautiful painting or sketch of an owl.
In this uniqueness, commonplace books could be seen as a reaction to the advent of print and the development of mass-produced books, magazines, and newspapers. It's surely no coincidence that the practice of keeping a commonplace book emerged so shortly after the invention of the printing press. Commonplacing, as this practice was called, was a means of managing the flow of information as printed works — pamphlets, sermons, newspapers, novels — became increasingly available. Rather than rendering manuscript culture obsolete, then, the printing press arguably increased the value of handwritten documents, just as many of us today would still value a handwritten letter over an email.
I'm going to suggest to you that in the early modern world, commonplace books fulfilled for their owners some of the functions that social media now fulfils for today's users. What do I mean by social media? Good question.
I'm referring to computer-mediated technologies that enable users to create and share information and ideas with a virtual community. Commonplace books similarly enabled the sharing of information and ideas with a community of readers, but my aim in this talk is going to be less to establish analogies between media of the past and present than to situate them on a developmental continuum of reading and writing practices. While these practices have changed over the centuries, they have long been fundamental to how we understand ourselves and the world.
So, before turning to continuities between past and present forms of social media, I want to start off with a quick history of the commonplace book and related forms of personal record-keeping illustrated with some examples from the National Library's collection.
So, some historians have traced the commonplace books to the courts of 14th-century Italy, where they were known as 'zibaldone', or 'salads of many herbs'. Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio all kept 'zibaldone', which suggests that the collection of myths, legends, and anecdotes may have been part of the process of poetic creation for them. Other historians locate the origins of commonplace books in the clergy's practice of collecting 'florilegia', or 'gatherings of flowers' — 'compilations of excerpts from Christian and classical sources to be drawn upon when composing sermons.' Whether you prefer the image of a floral bouquet or a mixed salad, both metaphors emphasise the heterogeneous composition of commonplace books.
As early as 1512, the scholar Erasmus of Rotterdam provided guidelines for organising and indexing commonplace books using general headings.
Topics were listed alphabetically, and entries could be linked to the index by page number even if they didn't appear alphabetically in the book itself, as they do in this 17th-century example, also from the Advocates Library. I feel a bit sorry for this poor person, because he came up with this list of topics about which he wanted to find information clearly before he started collecting information, so he made the index first, in other words. And you can see that for some topics he found oodles to write, for instance moors and Moliere, women and death — he filled up pages in cramped writing. But then other things, sadly he found a little bit about creation and corruption, absolutely nothing about correction. And there are many such blank pages in his book, so better to make the index last, I think is the moral there.
Erasmus understood the process of transcribing passages as an aid to memory and interpretation, declaring that it should 'have the effect of imprinting what you read more deeply on your mind, as well as accustoming you to utilising the riches of your reading' (74). The commonplace book wasn't just a repository for storing information; rather, it was part of the active process of reading. It shouldn't be surprising then, that in the 17th century, the practice of commonplacing was taught at universities and the Inns of Court as a way for students and apprentices to absorb their lessons. The idea that commonplacing could be an aid to memory persisted across centuries, and many books begin with some kind of invocation of memory. For instance, Kath Sym of Edinburgh, who kept a commonplace book in the early 19th century, began it with some lines from a poem called 'The Pleasures of Memory' by the once well-known but now almost forgotten poet Samuel Rogers. She writes:
'Hail memory hail! In thy exhaustless mine
From age to age unnumbered treasures shine
Thought, and her shadowy brood, thy call obey
And place and time are subject to thy sway!
Thy pleasures most we feel when most alone
The only pleasures we can call our own —'
The verse is particularly appropriate to the first use to which Miss Sym put her book, an account of her recent trip to Glasgow and the Borders. She writes: 'Having in my last excursion met with many pleasing objects and some agreeable people, I am willing to prolong the impression by sketching the outlines of my journey, which will enable me to recall the different scenes with greater facility than if entrusted altogether to memory.'
Kath Sym's book reminds us that commonplace books need not consist solely of passages copied from other works but can also include original writing. They share affinities with other forms of personal record-keeping, such as account books, diaries or journals, and even scrapbooks. But there are significant differences among these forms. A diary is usually intended only to be read by the person who keeps it, whether it's a simple calendar of events or a personal, introspective account of the writer's experiences. By contrast, commonplace books were intended to be shared around, and this was especially important at a time when books were expensive. It was a way you could reads things by different authors without having to buy lots of books or get them from a library.
To get a sense of the difference between a diary and a commonplace book, we can take a look at the example of Lady Anne Stuart, wife of the fifth Baronet of Castlemilk.
In the year 1793, she kept a commonplace book and a diary, which she called 'a journal book'. The latter is organised chronologically with pre-prepared spaces for recording the most significant events of each day — visits paid, trips to town, births and deaths, illnesses, and weather conditions. But in this journal there is very little mention of Lady Anne's thoughts and feelings beyond 'Not well & in very bad spirits' — this written two days after the death of her father-in-law, who had been staying at the house. While her diary blandly records the social routines of the Scottish gentry, her commonplace book reveals quite a different side of Lady Anne.
This little book consists entirely of extracts from works of religious devotion — whether in the form of poems, hymns, prayers, or meditations — with such cheerful titles as 'Devotional Exercise Preparatory for Death, May 17—[93?],' or 'A Soliloquy, found in a Lady's Dressing Box after her Death.' A number are simply titled 'Morning Hymn' or 'Evening Hymn,' suggesting that Lady Anne may have intended the book to be used whether by herself or by others as part of daily devotional rituals. The commonplace book in some ways seems more impersonal than the diary, as Lady Anne never refers to herself or her friends or relations in it. But its contents reveal a woman whose spiritual life was much deeper and more intense than the diary would suggest.
While Lady Anne kept her commonplace book and her diary distinct, there is quite often some overlap between the two, as illustrated with unusual clarity by Emma Elliot Hislop's diary.
Before her marriage to Thomas Hislop in 1822, the astoundingly well-read Emma was an enthusiastic commonplacer, and several of her books, which include passages in German, French, and Italian, as well as English, are held here. I'll have more to say about them later, but for a moment I want to take a look at her diary, which runs from 1825 to 1851.
Read conventionally from the front, it is divided up into years, providing a record of the family's places of residence and social engagements for the year. But if you flip it upside down and read from the back, it's again divided into years, but with certain passages copied in under each year as if it was a commonplace book. (Sorry — what I meant to do there is show you that book is upside down — it has the big margins at the bottom there — it's hard to tell on a screen.) It's as if, once she became a wife and mother, Emma didn't have time to keep a commonplace book anymore, so she kind of doubled up her diary and did what she could with it.
Commonplace books can also share affinities with the scrapbook, especially those from the later 19th century, when printed material was readily and cheaply available to be cut up and pasted. But commonplace books differ from scrapbooks in that reading and writing are integral to their purpose. That is, the selecting and copying of passages should encourage the writer's reflections on their significance in a way that simply cutting and pasting clippings out of the paper wouldn't. To illustrate the difference, we might take the case of Mary Stewart, later Lady Dalrymple of Newhailes, who began keeping scrapbooks in 1899, around the time she 'came out' as a marriageable young lady.
This is a cover of one of her scrapbooks — so you can see that she came from a wealthy background — it's beautiful and her name is embossed up at the top there: 'M Stewart' for Mary Stewart.
Her beautifully bound books are filled with photographs, newspaper clippings, and sketches, as well as menus, dance cards, and other memorabilia from weddings, balls, hunts, and visits.
Here she's recording a grand masonic bazaar in Ayrshire, hence the Burns connections. Here she has a visit to Baynam Manor in Cheshire — family friends — and here, I think this is a hunt of some sort, or else she's watching a race or something. Something to do with riding horses — somebody in the audience might know better than me. Anyway, she clearly had a very exciting life and a very beautiful scrapbook to show for it.
Like commonplace books, these scrapbooks are aids to memory, but they commemorate occasions rather than ideas or sentiments.
Stewart's scrapbooks include the occasional bit of doggerel copied in by a friend, you can see up at the top right here — a verse — but most of the writing consists of autographs of the people who were at these events with her.
Eliza Anderson Graeme's book illustrates the overlaps between commonplace and scrapbooks especially well. To judge by the dated items, Graeme began her compendious book, which covers more than 50 years, in 1820.
By pasting in items in overlapping layers, Graeme made maximum use of the space in the book, producing what is perhaps the most miscellaneous commonplace book in the National Library's collection.
'An Ode to Napoleon', dated August 1828, sits beside a recipe for potpourri dated May 1838; a hymn sung at Montrose Chapel in August of 1852 follows a list of Gaelic names for dogs, which jostles in turn with drawings of the Graeme's coat of arms. Rather poignantly, there are several loose items in the back of the book that were still awaiting pasting in when Graeme either abandoned this book, or, as I would hypothesise, perhaps died.
So, mixed forms — like Emma Elliot Hislop's diary / commonplace book, and Eliza Graeme's commonplace book / scrapbook — pose special challenges to researchers and librarians. How should these items be categorised and catalogued? Emma's hybrid book is catalogued here as a diary, so someone working on commonplace books might overlook it, missing the compilation of quotations it contains. If we were to honor the terminology that people used to describe their various notebooks — such as Lady Anne's phrase, 'journal book' — the result would be an unwieldy and virtually meaningless proliferation of terms. But despite the challenges that their categorisation and interpretation pose, these hybrid forms are valuable because they frequently signal moments of rapid cultural change, when new technologies transformed the way people organised information and understood the world around them.
The mix of handwritten and printed materials in Graeme's and Stewart's books was enabled by the invention of the steam-driven printing press and stereotype plates, both of which made newspapers and magazines cheaper. These technologies undermined the absorption of ideas or information that copying out passages entailed and that was, for Erasmus, the main point of keeping a commonplace book. Indeed, these technological developments initiated changes in the way we process information that are still playing out today, as fewer children are taught joined up handwriting, but more know how to look up information on the internet from a very young age. The distinction is perhaps one between being able to internalise a few ideas very deeply and being able to locate many.
Looking to the changing media of the past can help us to see the new media of the present is less of a radical break with an older world than part of a long and continuous process of change. This brings me back to my earlier claim that commonplace books, considered as a technology — a means of preserving and transmitting information — served for their owners some of the purposes that social media, such as Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest serve for their users today.
I'm going to focus for the remainder of my talk on two of the most basic of these functions. First, I'll suggest that commonplace books were a way of constructing a personal identity and second that they offered a way of establishing and maintaining social networks.
For better or worse, social media allows its users to manufacture a self-image, one that critics would have us believe is inauthentic, or at least partial —as on the case of the holiday photos of sunny beaches that don't feature the moment when you and your family had a big row. However pernicious we might feel it to be, the practice of creating idealised self-images has been around for a long time. Commonplace books allow us insight into the process of self-construction.
Take, for instance, the commonplace book of Sir Gilbert Elliot, third Baronet of Minto, accomplished classical scholar, close friend of David Hume, and grandfather of Emma Elliot, whose diary I mentioned earlier. Elliot was appointed the first sheriff-deputy of Roxburgh in 1748, and served in the House of Commons from 1753 until his death in 1777. The Library holds just one of his commonplace books dating from around 1740, when he would have been about 20, still a young man fresh from his studies at Edinburgh University. The book is notable for the singularity of its purpose: all the passages in it are reminders of the importance of virtue, or of maintaining what we might now call personal integrity, amidst the corruption of public life.
It consists of a series of numbered maxims, such as: 'In the conduct of Life it is usual to consider what may be the most profitable part, but do you always consider what is the most beautiful & thus you shall seldom err', or: 'It is ever an easier matter to form the highest Ideas of Virtue, than to reduce the most moderate into practice.'
The book suggests that Gilbert Elliot was already preparing for the public positions that he would later hold by teaching himself to avoid the temptations that would come with power. Women too used commonplace books for self-improvement. The first section of Lady Matilda Cochrane's commonplace book of 1813 is headed 'Remarks on the Plots of Shakespeare's Plays,' and the ensuing pages provide a summary of each play, followed by Lady Cochrane's reflections on it. Of 'As you like it', she declares, 'This play is full of impossibilities — and the plot tho' interesting is certainly unnatural — it is not likely the whole host of friends should rendezvous [by chance] at the same forest.' And of 'Titus Andronicus', 'This play is much too bloody & murderous for my taste — Cutting throats seems quite to have been a favourite pastime.' While Lady Cochrane's literary criticism might leave something to be desired, it is clear that she set herself the task of working through Shakespeare's plays to become a more cultured reader. Like Elliot's, her commonplace book helped her not just to envision the person that she wanted to become, but to bring that person into being.
Social media has made obvious the extent to which humans construct their identities through bricolage or selective appropriation, like highly evolved magpies. It has always been true that the material objects contribute significantly to the image that we present to others. In some ways, social media has democratised this process, providing materials for building a self that are available to anyone with an internet connection. Liking a post on Facebook or pinning a picture to your Pinterest board is in a way to make it your own, and simultaneously, to reveal something about your tastes and interests to others. Researchers have found that approximately 80% of postings on Facebook, Instagram, and twitter, are in fact re-postings or retweets. Rather than presenting original material, they contain content, or links to content, created by other users.
Commonplace books similarly allowed their owners to construct a self-image through bricolage. While these books contained some original compositions, they more often consisted of excerpts from the works of published authors that reflected the moods, tastes, or experiences of the book's owner.
Emma Elliot's commonplace books offer a particularly useful glimpse into commonplacing's role in the construction of identity because the six volumes held at the Library cover the years from 1809, when Emma, aged 16, received a commonplace book for her birthday from someone with the initials 'T H', to approximately 1835, 13 years after her marriage to one Thomas Hislop.
Emma is from a relatively wealthy background. She has lovely books, she has her name engraved on the clasp there, and some others have her name embossed on the cover.
Into the first two books, Emma, with the large loopy handwriting of a teenage girl, often copied entire poems that she liked — Milton's 'Il Penseroso' and Burns's 'To a Mouse', for instance. By 1813, at age 20, Emma had become much more selective — copying short passages that must have been particularly meaningful to her, rather than entire poems. Her third book, begun while she was living in London, demonstrates the amazing breadth of her reading. It includes passages from poems and prose works by James Beattie, William Cowper, Charlotte Smith, Thomas Blacklock, Madame de Stael, Anna Letitia Barbauld, Amelia Opie, Edward Young, Samuel Rogers, Byron, Burns, Goethe, Schlegel, Schiller, and Petrarch. In later volumes, these names are supplemented by Cardinal Retz, Walter Scott, Shakespeare, Hannah More, Letitia Elizabeth Landon, Washington Irving, Sir Walter Raleigh, Thomas Sheridan, Edmund Burke, Samuel Pepys, George Dekker, John Donne, John Webster, Walter Savage Landor, Anna Jameson, William Wordsworth, and Victor Hugo — in the original French, of course.
While the breadth of Emma's reading is impressive, it's as important to note what she wasn't reading — or at least what she didn't consider important enough to copy passages from — namely, novels. This tells us something about her intellectual aspirations and perhaps also her sense of feminine propriety.
While several of the authors I just listed did write novels (Scott, Opie, Charlotte Smith, and others), Emma copied passages only from their poetry and nonfiction prose. Nowhere in her commonplace books does Jane Austen appear, nor does she copy passages from Walter Scott's novels, the most popular literary works of her day. This is likely because in the early 19th century, novels still had a reputation, especially in Scottish circles, as popular trash, and Emma clearly valued intellectual cultivation. We'll never know if she read 'Pride and Prejudice' on the sly, but I was able to find passages from only five novels in her commonplace books, although she copied multiple passages from two of them: Edward Bulwer-Lytton's immensely popular novel 'Pelham' (1828) — nobody reads that anymore — and 'The favourite of nature', from 1820, by Mary Ann Kelty which I'd never even heard of before I came to her commonplace book.
Despite the breadth of Emma's reading, some authors served as touchstones for her, and she returned repeatedly to their works throughout the 26 years covered by her commonplace books.
(Sorry, I meant to put this up earlier — this is the poem on her birthday from Thomas Hislop in the first book — you can see the 'T H' down in the bottom corner there.)
Hannah More and Madame de Stael, both of whom wrote about female education and conduct, were among these touchstones for Emma; and Mary Ann Kelty's 'Favourite of nature' also seems to have warranted re-visiting. This strongly Evangelical novel, virtually unknown today, must have been well loved by Emma, as she copied several passages from it, some of them more than once.
Take this passage: 'For a while an inhabitant of Earth, live in it as though your happiness were never to be found in it; — it never is — it mocks an earthly grasp.' It appears twice in Emma's last commonplace book. Perhaps Emma forgot that she'd previously copied it, but regardless of whether she forgot or not, the passage twice struck her as meaningful. The passage asserts the transience of worldly happiness, and Emma may have had repeated reasons to remind herself of this commonplace between 1817 and 1822. For although she never writes anything about her thoughts or experiences in her commonplace books, the passages copied into them reveal changes of mood or attitude that seem to correspond to historical events in which Emma was involved.
At the beginning of 1814, Emma's father, Hugh Elliot of Minto, was appointed governor of Madras, and the family went out to India. In late 1814, Thomas Hislop, whose distinguished military career had already made him a baronet, was appointed Commander in Chief of the Madras Army.
The flowers pressed in the pages of Emma's commonplace book of 1814-15 perhaps indicate a renewal of acquaintance with the T H who had inscribed the birthday ode in 16-year-old Emma's first commonplace book. But they don't look like flowers now, I know, but trust me, black splotches — they are actually very old dried flowers.
But her commonplace books also suggest that Emma's life was not without its trials at this time. In 1817 the Third Anglo-Maratha War broke out and Hislop was given command of the main British army, which forced the surrender of the Maratha border fortresses. Hislop's leadership was recognised when he was made Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath, but he became embroiled in a controversy surrounding the distribution of valuables confiscated from the Marathas. Although no less a person than the Duke of Wellington defended Hislop's character, he was tried and removed from command in 1820. In light of these events, the passage asserting the transience of worldly happiness that Emma copied and recopied into her commonplace book at this time acquires new resonance. Other passages similarly suggest anxiety about the outcome of the investigation.
The 1820 commonplace book takes as its motto 'On ne doit ni se montrer, ni se cacher, mais simplement se laisser voir.' Although unattributed on the book's first page, this quotation comes from the memoirs of Madame de Stael, one of the writers to whom Emma returned repeatedly. It suggests that the truth will come out if we simply resign ourselves to the course of events. A quotation from 'On solitude' (1783-4) by the Swiss philosopher and physician, Johann von Zimmermann — one of Emma's favourite authors — warns: 'Human happiness is continually exposed to interruption — At the very moment, alas! When we vainly think ourselves most secure, Fate, by a sudden blow, strikes its unhappy victim even in our arms.' So the mood in the commonplace books is quite dire at this point.
And a passage from Sappho — not one of Emma's go-to authors — suggests how deeply Emma may have felt Hislop's tribulations: 'He knows not how when woman is enamoured, her hopes, her fears, her business, and her pleasures, her words, her noon-day dreams and midnight visions, and very prayers are all made up of love.'
Emma and Hislop were married in 1822, and inside the back cover of the last of Emma's commonplace books is an odd little note: 'Emma Eleanor Elizabeth Hislop was born November 26th 1824 — good luck to her.' Maybe that was standard at the time, but to me it just seemed a bit sinister.
My aims in giving you this extended account of Emma Elliot's commonplace books has been to demonstrate how commonplacing allowed people to create an identity through bricolage and to understand themselves and their world through their reading.
As she matured, Emma became more adept at identifying and recording passages that reflected a range of moods, tastes, and experiences not simply because of the breadth of her reading but also because she seems to have come to understand how practices of reading and writing can provide solace in difficult times, when turning to great or even indifferent literature — like 'The favours of nature' — can remind us that others have survived uncertainty and disappointment. Emma's books also show how commonplacing might be especially helpful for gentlewomen, who were not supposed to talk or even think about courtship and marriage. Her commonplace books allowed Emma to reflect on the experience of being in love without having to address her feelings directly or in her own words.
Emma's case thus illustrates nicely the odd space that commonplace books occupied between the public and private realms; her books offer insights into Emma's thoughts and feelings obliquely rather than directly as a diary or journal might, constructing a version of herself that is safe for public viewing. While we can make some informed guesses about the personal significance of the passages that Emma copied into her books, we'll never know with certainty if these guesses are accurate.
This brings me to the second similarity between today's social media and early modern commonplace books, namely that both help us to affirm connections with others. For commonplace books were intended to be shared, which is why you wouldn't put your very private thoughts in them.
In a recent book called 'Writing on the wall', Tom Standage differentiates mass media, which is centralised and hierarchical, from social media, in which the exchange of information and ideas occurs horizontally between one person and another. In a mass media system, information is delivered from an impersonal central source. By contrast, in a social media system, ideas are shared through dispersed networks of users, like the little red man in the middle here, who is connected with all these individuals separately. By contrast in a social media system, ideas are shared through dispersed networks of users, so there are multiple connections among the individuals. This doesn't mean that social media is inherently more or less reliable than mass media, I would hasten to add, but simply that it creates greater opportunities for modifying or countering the information and ideas that are shared. Standage argues that for most of human history, the horizontal forms of exchange proper to social media have been the norm, and that it was only for a relatively brief time from the mid-19th to the late 20th century that mass media came to dominate.
Commonplace books, considered as an early form of social media, bear out his theory insofar as friends and family members often contributed to each other's books, offering original compositions, or copying in passages from their own favourite works. As we've seen, the practice of commonplacing originated at a time when printed books were expensive and newspapers were still a novelty. Rather than buying an expensive book, you might copy into your commonplace book your favourite passage from a copy you've taken from the library, or you might copy the passages that your friend, who had read the checked the book out of the library and read, had copied into her commonplace book. So reading or writing in other people's commonplace books was a way of enjoying literature at second or third or fourth hand. The transmission of a passage from one person's book to another cemented the kinds of horizontal social connections that Standage describes. Commonplace books were often composed with an audience in mind, for the purposes of entertainment. For instance, Kath Sym's commonplace book contains a number of riddles of the sort that, in Jane Austen's 'Emma', Emma and her hapless friend Harriet collect. It also includes charades that were intended to be performed at social gatherings. The social function of commonplace books is also implicit in the following original lines that Miss Sym inscribed in her niece Elizabeth Wilson's commonplace book:
'What a task my dear girl on your Aunt you impose
Bid to write in your book, yet forbid to write prose –
Has it not been a maxim familiar from birth
That aunts were the veriest prosers on earth?
Sym's aim here was obviously not to provide Elizabeth with profound ideas to contemplate in hours of solitude, but rather to demonstrate her wit.
Catherine Selby's commonplace book, begun in 1828, begins by explicitly inviting contributions from others:
'Here each may place his tributary line
And give variety to our design
As at a pic-nic dinner, every guest
Brings his own dish, & shares the general feast.
Selby imagines the book as a potluck, encouraging her readers to enjoy the dishes provided and to add something for others to enjoy, kind of going back to that 'zibaldone' mixed salad metaphor. One of the book's readers offered flattery as his dish:
This book enrich'd with elegance and taste
With varied gems of pen and pencil grac'd
Will please alike the saddened and the gay
And drive chill thought and lazy time away.
This is an offring fairest maid to thee
Look on it sometimes and remember me.
Quite often, however, contributions to others' commonplace books were more substantial than these witty verses might suggest, commemorating a shared experience or conveying deep affection.
In some cases, commonplace books provide substantial details of their owners' personal connections, allowing us to trace the social networks of the past.
Take, for instance, the case of Anne MacVicar Grant, an early 19th-century poet and essayist who published her first book, called 'Poems on various subjects', in 1803, shortly after the death of her husband, a clergyman, left her the sole provider for her eight children.
Her commonplace book from the 1820s demonstrates the extent to which her poetry grew out of exchanges with friends and family members. Like many other commonplace books of her day, Grant's contains passages from poems by Wordsworth, Byron, Crabbe, and Southey. But it also contains poems written by Grant's friends and relations — such as her daughter Mary's 'Lines suggested by the sight of some late Autumn Flowers at Ardincaple' and her former pupil Lady Joan Campbell's 'Lines on the Grave of a Lady.' Grant copied into her commonplace books poems that she herself had written for others, for instance, 'To Mrs Dunlop of Dunlop. With the author's picture,' or 'Lines to a Young Lady who had been Recommended by the Author to take an Interest in Historical Reading' (this was Miss Jane Fraser, another pupil of Grant's).
Grant's commonplace book reveals her poetry's origins in her social circle or what we might now call her friendship network. Indeed, the exchange and collection of poetry in commonplace books gave a kind of materiality to kinship and friendship. Commonplace books like Grant's also encourage us to reconsider what it means to be an author and what constitutes a literary work. Margaret Ezell, one of the foremost scholars of manuscript culture, has shown that our understandings of authorship and of literariness are deeply wedded to print-based publication, so that we tend to think of a literary work as the published product of an individual's intellectual labour. Arguably, though, Grant's commonplace book is as much a literary work as her published collection 'Poems on various subjects'.
In the commonplace book, authorship is a collaborative enterprise, one that depends upon the exchange of poems between Grant and her friends. 'Poems on various subjects' also came into being through Grant's network of friends, as it was published by subscription, meaning that the cost of publication was defrayed by people who signed up in advance to purchase a copy, and — luckily for Grant, she had over 400 subscribers — she had a lot of friends, a well-connected woman, including some who, several of her sons were in the military so she had a lot of overseas connections through them. In collaborative forms of authorship, we see another continuity between commonplace books and contemporary forms of social media. Print publication is still the prerogative of a relatively few individuals. But electronic media such as blogs are comparatively democratic, allowing anyone with access to the technology to share their words with a broad public, and encouraging collaboration among writers.
In concluding, I don't want to overstate the similarities between early modern commonplace books and today's social media. I'd be more comfortable saying that commonplace books are part of the long process of technological development that led us to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
These books are, to my mind, an invaluable part of the National Library's collection — and not only for the information they sometimes provide about historically important families like the Elliots.
More valuable, to me, are the insights these books offer into the ways our ancestors made sense of their experiences — how they may have coped with doubt and grief, cherished love and friendship, and experienced wonder and delight. Studying the writing and reading practices of past ages is useful in part because it reminds us that humans have always interacted with others and understood their environments through technologies of various sorts. When we lament the ways that new technologies are changing how we perceive the world and interact with others, as I often do, it's easy to believe there might have been a kind of Edenic time when this was not the case. But I suggest that perhaps there was no such unmediated existence, or at least not one that would be recognisable to us as human. Equally unimaginable is how technology will continue to shape our perceptions and interactions in the future. Two hundred years from now, scholars may be studying digital archives of tweets and texts to figure out how people thought and felt in the early 21st century. Our technologies may seem as quaint to them as some of these commonplace books seem now.
As those scholars of the future try to understand our public and private identities, our social conventions, our thoughts and feelings, what conclusions will they draw about us?